Past child development research often ignored fathers. But new studies are finding that non-maternal caregivers play a crucial role in children’s behaviour, happiness, even cognitive skills.

The Aka tribesmen in the Central African Republic often look after their young children while the mothers are out hunting. They soothe, clean and play with their babies, and spend more time holding them than fathers in any other society. Their devotion has earned them the title of “the world’s best dads” from online commentators which is somewhat ironic given that the Aka are strictly egalitarian and shun rankings.

Still, it shows just how dramatically the wider view of being a “good father” has changed over time.

Today, many dads are celebrated for being sensitive, caring and hands-on. A growing body of research is transforming our understanding of how they can shape their children’s lives from the start, challenging conventional ideas of parenthood and gender.

This is striking given that until the 1970s, the role of fathers in their children’s development was not much studied at all. Their most important job was seen as economically supporting the mother, who would in turn be the emotional anchor for the child.

“There was a lot of focus on how relationships with mothers were very important, and there was very little thought about other social relationships,” says Michael Lamb, a psychologist at the University of Cambridge who has been studying fathers since the 1970s. “The most obvious of those was the father-child relationship – a relationship that was viewed as more important as children grow older, but was always viewed as secondary to the mother-child relationship.”

Or as Marian Bakermans-Kranenburg of Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, who is doing a series of studies on new fathers and family relations, puts it: “Half of parents are fathers, yet 99% of the research on parenting focuses on mothers.”

Now, new research is showing that the social world of children is much richer, and more complex, than previously thought.

It is not just dads who have moved into the spotlight. Grandparents, same-sex parents, step-parents and single parents have also helped researchers understand what really makes a child thrive – and that it’s not just about one caregiver.

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“Part of the argument that I’ve been trying to make for the past 45 years is that actually, no, there are multiple important factors,” says Lamb. “We do want to recognise differences in their importance, but we also need to recognise that – to quote that cliché – it does take a village, and that there are a lot of important relationships that shape children’s development.”

A range of recent studies show how flexible parenting roles can be. Psychologist Ruth Feldman of Israel’s Bar-Ilan University has found that, just like mothers, fathers experience a hormonal boost when caring for their babies, which helps the bonding process. When dads are the main caregivers, their brains adapt to the task.  

And emotional involvement matters. Babies with emotionally engaged dads show better mental development as toddlers and are less likely to have behavioural problems later on, compared to babies whose dads behave in a more detached way. Older children benefit, too. Those whose fathers, or father figures, are more emotionally supportive, tend to be more satisfied with life and have better relationships with teachers and other children.

“The factors that lead to the formation of relationships are exactly the same for mother and father,” says Lamb. “It really comes down to the emotional availability, recognising the child’s needs, responding to those, providing the comfort and support that the child needs.”

Past research has found that mothers and fathers do tend to interact differently with small children: mothers bond more through gentle caretaking, while fathers typically bond through play. But that, Lamb says, has less to do with gender and more with the division of childcare.

Studies of same-sex couples and stay-at-home dads have shown that regardless of gender, it is the parent who works during the day, and comes home in the evening, who tends to play wilder games, like picking up their baby and swinging them around. The parent who looks after the baby all day is likely to interact with them more calmly.

In heterosexual couples, the parent who takes on most of the care during the day is often still the mother for a range of social and economic reasons.

One is to do with parental leave. While all OECD countries except the US provide nationwide, publicly-funded, paid maternity leave, only half provide paid paternity leave that lasts for at least two months. Meanwhile, given the persisting gender wage gap, it often simply makes economic sense for new mothers rather than fathers to stay at home. Across the OECD, women earn 13.8% less than men (based on median earnings).

This helps to explain why parental leave alone is not the answer. In the UK, where shared parental leave is available, as few as 2% of couples take it.

In fact, even among the much-praised Aka, the women do the majority of the childcare. They hunt and forage with their babies snuggled against them in a sling. But no-one yet has declared them the world’s best mothers.

But involving dads more from the start can have many benefits, research has shown. And play, regardless of whether it’s calm or boisterous, is particularly beneficial.

“Play is the language of childhood: it’s the way children explore the world, it’s how they build relationships with other children,” says Paul Ramchandani, who studies play in education, development and learning at the University of Cambridge. He and his team observed fathers playing with their babies in the first months of life, then tracked the children’s development. They found that early father-baby interactions are much more important than previously assumed.

Babies whose dads were more active and engaged during play had fewer behavioural difficulties at age one compared to those with more distant or detached dads. They also did better in cognitive tests at two, for example in their ability to recognise shapes.

These outcomes were independent of the mother’s relationship with the child.

Ramchandani cautions that the results should not be interpreted as a clear causal link. Instead of directly affecting their children’s development, the distant dads’ behaviour could, for example, be a sign of other problems in the family. Still, he sees the study as an encouragement to play with your child long before they can crawl and talk: “Some dads don’t do that when the babies are young because they’re unsure about what they should do, or unsure if they’re doing the right things.” Of course, new mothers may feel similarly hesitant.

But Ramchandani says it can be as simple as sitting the baby on your lap, making eye contact, and observing what they enjoy.

“It’s the getting involved that’s the most important thing, because you’ll get better at it if you practice it. It’s not something that comes naturally to everybody. Some people are really good at it, but for most people it takes practice,” he says.

In many ways, fathers are more involved than ever. There are fathers’ playgroups, dads-only baby massage classes, and hugely popular online videos of dad-and-baby dance ensembles.

Visit a typical weekday baby group in even a relatively progressive neighbourhood in London, however, and the picture quickly changes. Yes, there are usually one or two dads around, and they are just as competent as the mums. But the bulk of parenting still seems to fall to women. Around the world, women spend up to 10 times more time on unpaid care work – including childcare – than men.

“I think we’re at a crossroads in terms of how we view fathers,” says Anna Machin, an anthropologist and author of The Life of Dad, a book on modern fathering.

Machin argues that while most dads want to be more active at home, the workplace has not really adapted to this. “That’s where the tension is for men at the moment: between needing and wanting to care, and also needing to still provide,” she says.

Given the financial pressures many families face, Machin fears there could actually be a reversal to more traditional roles: “If you’re a dad now, if you want to be involved, you have to be a bit of a pioneer in the workplace. You have to go against all that culture of, ‘men go back to work’. You have to be the one to go, ‘Actually, I want to assert my rights’.

“And that’s quite a hard thing to do.”

A more equal division can have many long-term benefits. Researchers led by sociologists Helen Norman and Colette Fagan at the University of Manchester found that fathers were more likely to be involved when the child was aged three if they shared childcare equally when the child was nine months old. In Scotland, a study of more than 2,500 families showed that supportive father-child relationships matter as much as mother-child relationships for children’s wellbeing. In another sign of change, the study included father-figures such as stepfathers, whose impact has often been side-lined.

“People did take note, and it’s helping to maintain or increase the profile of fathers in a range of policy discussions,” says Paul Bradshaw, director of the Scottish Centre for Social Research, which undertook the study on behalf of the Scottish government.

Perhaps one day, a male chief executive with a baby sling will be as common a sight as a group of Aka men carrying their infants back from the hunt. In the meantime, dads can take comfort in the fact that there are countless ways of being a good parent.

“One of the points we’ve learned is that there isn’t a model of the ideal father. There isn’t a recipe for what the father needs to do or what sorts of behaviour he needs to emulate,” says Lamb.

Ultimately, he says, it’s about being emotionally available, and meeting the child’s needs. “Different people do that in different ways. There’s been a lot of talk about, ‘do dads need to do that in a masculine way?’ And the answer is no, they don’t need to.

“They need to do it in a way that makes sense for them, that feels authentic, that allows them to be fully and coherently engaged in the relationship with their child.”

Photographer Gabriele Galimberti is a photographer whose images have been exhibited at London’s V&A Museum and appeared in National Geographic, The Sunday Times and Le Monde. He is represented by The Story INSTITUTE.

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